Argentine scientists have accused a nature conservation foundation of “intimidation” as an academic debate over rewilding descended into legal threats.
At issue is whether introducing certain large mammals to parts of Argentina will benefit ecosystems and cut emissions or harm local wildlife and threaten human health.
In April, a group of over 100 scientists published an article on the potential pitfalls of reintroducing the wrong kind of animals to the wrong kind of places.
The Rewilding Foundation Argentina (FRA) thought the article accused them of xenophobia and sent a legal letter to the authors, accusing them of slander, a criminal offence which could cost them their government jobs.
One of the scientists feeling threatened was Alejandro Valenzuela from the National University of Tierra del Fuego. He told Climate Home that “rewilding projects could have some minor climate benefits, as healthy ecosystems lock in more carbon.”
“But,” he said, “they have to be done right and scrutinised properly and freely”.
Although independent and based in Argentina, FRA has strong links to a conservation charity set up by American billionaires Douglas and Kris Tompkins, who made their money from the North Face brand of cold weather clothes.
FRA’s funders include companies like Rolex, Toyota and Patagonia, other charities like Turtle Conservancy and the Parrot Wildlife Foundation and several wealthy individuals.
The battle has played out mostly in the normally sedate pages of the an academic journal called Neo-Tropical Mastozoology.
Last year, an Argentine biologist called Mario Di Bitetti and two colleagues from Denmark’s Aarhus University published an article which was critical of the Latin American scientists.
“Until now, the Latin American scientific community has generally opposed the presence of perceived exotic mammals in natural settings, without even considering their effects are,” they said.
“A xenophobic and nationalist conception has dominated, which has produced a demonisation of exotics,” they added.
In April 2023, over 100 Argentine scientists hit back in the same journal. They argued that reintroducing animals should not be a goal in itself but a way of restoring ecosystems.
They warned that big grass-eating animals can destroy grassland and that introducing animals in small numbers can leed to inbreeding, which produces weak and infertile offspring which are less likely to survive.
What most angered FRA though was a section which said that “some rewilding projects developed in Argentina propose a single interaction with local inhabitants, mainly through tourism projects, craft manufacturing and/or attention to visitors”.
It then asked: “Is it xenophobic to attempt to control introduced species… or is it xenophobic to ignore our multicultural reality, imposing the agenda of entrepreneurship on the native human populations of America?”
Lawyers get involved
FRA took this as a thinly-veiled criticism of them and reacted angrily. They sent a legal letter, seen by Climate Home, to one of the most high-profile of the article’s authors – the director of the Natural History Museum of Buenos Aires Pablo Teta.
The letter says that xenophobia is a criminal offence and they “will not tolerate” being accused of it.
They go on to accuse Teta and his fellow authors of the criminal offence of slander and demand a retraction “in the same medium in which the slander was poured out, under warning of initiating judicial actions”.
The letter finished by saying: “It is worth clarifying that the Penal Code provides for the accessory penalty of disqualification when the authors of the slander are public officials.” Like many of his fellow authors, Teta is a public official.
The editor of the journal Isabel E Gómez Villafañe declined their request for a public retraction. She said that FRA had not been directly named anywhere in the article and had been repeatedly invited to respond and not taken up the offer.
Valenzuela told Climate Home that he had been disappointed that “what could have been a rich academic debate turned into a potential judicial dispute.”
He added: “In my own country, I was left feeling intimidated and threatened by censorship by this NGO which works with international funding”.
In a statement, FRA denied this letter was a form of intimidation a threat to freedom of speech. “On the contrary,” they said, “the letter helped to rectify a serious unfair accusation”.
The argument played out on social media too. As FRA posted on X about the “false accusations”, one user praised FRA’s “great work” while another said “what you can do if you don’t like Argentine science is leave our country”.
REWILDING, INVESTIGADORES, XENOFOBIA, FAKE NEWS Y CIERVOS · Respondemos a las acusaciones falsas que circulan por las redes sociales y publicaciones digitales: https://t.co/DBq73qLbgb pic.twitter.com/4jMva7Vqap
— Rewilding Argentina (@RewildingArg) July 8, 2023
At around the same time, FRA was invited to a meeting with the National Parks Administration (APN) to discuss their project alongside scientists, technicians and the health ministry.
On the day of the meeting, FRA legal representatives sent APN a note saying they weren’t going to show up. The experts in the room discussed the project anyway and a few weeks later, the APN rejected the plan.
In a statement, they said it was a risk to public health. Swamp deer can spread a potentially life-threatening disease called human monocytic ehrlichosis and, the APN said, the project lacks a plan to tackle this risk.
New #glamping adventures in El Impenetrable National Park!
La Fidelidad campground in El Impenetrable National Park has expanded! Camping is free and accessible to the public, and there are now a total of 18 camping platforms where tourists can set up their tent or rent one🏕️🌌 pic.twitter.com/kFiI8da9Pk
— Tompkins Conservation (@tompkinsconserv) July 20, 2023
They added that the deer would be threatened by donkeys, dogs, wild animals, hunting and fire. Marsh deer are already considered vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Ian Convery is the co-chair of the IUCN’s rewilding group. He told Climate Home that rewilding “has to be the right species, right place and right time”.
FRA pointed out that the APN had approved aspects of the project in 2019 and 2021.
They claim it only rejected it in 2023 because it had a new director of conservation called Pablo Berrozpe and he had consulted with scientists critical of FRA whose “ability to objectively evaluate the project was at least compromised”.
Berrozpe disputes this. He says “the project was rejected since it did not meet the minimum requirements” and that FRA are underestimating the Argentine national scientific system.
Lawful right not intimidation
In their statement, RFA said that “technical arguments revealing the limitations of any conservation strategy are always welcome as they help to improve the sorely needed restoration of the world’s ecosystems.”
“But,” they added, “actions must be taken when these criticisms turn into a collection of violent misleading arguments” and “in a
democracy, such actions include resorting to legal tools so the victims of false claims can defend themselves.”
“This defensive strategy is a lawful right, not an action of intimidation”, they said.
A spokesperson for Tompkins Conservation said they supported the statement of RFA, which is their “offspring organisation” although now independent.
This article was amended on 10 November to include a comment from Pablo Berrozpe